Reviews | Who believes in democracy?

And this idea and self-image has remained a powerful aspect of the right-wing imagination even as the old Nixon and Reagan majorities hav...


And this idea and self-image has remained a powerful aspect of the right-wing imagination even as the old Nixon and Reagan majorities have shrunk and disappeared: with each new era of grassroots activism, from the Tea Party to the revolts of the In today’s local education, the right-wing reliably casts itself as small-d Democrats, boldly standing up against liberal technocracy chanting “Yankee Doodle.”

In this complicated context, Donald Trump’s stories of stolen elections must be understood as a way to reconcile the two competing tendencies within conservatism, the intellectual right’s skepticism of mass democracy and comfort with counter-majoritarian institutions with the populist right’s small-d democratic self-image. In Trump’s toxic dreampolitik, there is in fact no tension: the right-wing coalition is justified in governing from a minority position because it deserved to be a real electoral majority, and it would be if only the liberal enemy were not so good at cheating.

Seen from within the right, the challenge of getting out of Trump’s deceptions is not simply a matter of rekindling a conservative commitment to democracy. Trump succeeded precisely because he exploited the right Following democratic impulses, speaking to them and co-opting them and claiming them for himself. Which means a conservative rival cannot defeat or replace him by simply accusing him of being undemocratic. Instead, the only plausible argument would be that his populism is self-limiting and that a post-Trump GOP could potentially win a seat. Following scanning majority than the one his supporters want to believe he has already won – one that would hold up no matter what the liberal enemy does.

But if that argument is hard to make amid the smog of Trumpenkampf, so is the anti-Trump argument that makes American liberalism the force anyone who believes in American democracy should rally around. Because even if right-wing populists are wrong about their claim to represent a genuine American majority, they are absolutely right: contemporary liberalism is fundamentally misrepresented as a champion of popular self-reliance.

To be clear, the current Democratic Party is absolutely in favor of as many people as possible voting. There is no doubt about mass suffrage among liberals, no fear of electoral fraud and less concern than on the right about the pernicious influence of uninformed voters.

But when it comes to the work of government, the actual decisions that determine law and policy, liberalism is heir to its own not exactly democratic tradition – the progressive vision of disinterested experts claiming large swaths of the elaboration policies for themselves and away from the whims of public opinion, the whims of mere majorities.

This vision — what my colleague Nate Cohn recently called “Undemocratic liberalism” is a pervasive aspect of establishment politics not only in the United States but throughout the Western world. Question after controversial question, his answer to “Who Votes? is different from his answer to “Who decides?” In one case, the people; in the other, accredited experts, high-level stakeholders and activist groups, the bureaucratic process.



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